A town for all seasons - a break in Baden is a unique alternative to neighbouring Zurich
Let's start by clearing up a common confusion. Baden-Baden is a spa town you're likely to have heard of, in the Black Forest of Germany. The Baden I have had the privilege of visiting is a traditional Swiss town 20 minutes north west of Zurich.
Also a spa town (it’s all in the name you see, meaning ‘to bathe’); Baden has the most mineral rich thermal springs in Europe. It lies on the beautiful Limmat River with a scenic backdrop of lush woodland and hills laden with vineyards. And thanks to the peerless Swiss train network, Baden serves as the perfect base for exploring Switzerland.
But don’t be so quick to jump on a train to the surrounding destinations. Discover what’s right on your hotel doorstep first, and you’ll find a lively town that’s rich in medieval heritage and entertainment – and one that’s a delight all year round.
A winter warmer
Baden is a wonderful place to be in the winter, especially in the run up to Christmas. Glistening in white snow, up go the twinkling fairy lights around town and out come the Christmas stalls, hot glühwein, and bratwursts. It’s not the biggest of markets, but the local charm – and a cosy fondue hut – more than compensates for size.
Baden isn’t a ski resort. So don’t head there if you’re a powder junkie looking for a week in the mountains. However, it is great for accessing many of the local slopes and resorts if you do fancy just a couple of days skiing. The encircling forests also make for a real winter wonderland to explore.
For me though, the highlight of Baden in winter is the town’s thermal baths. The cheapest way to enjoy them is at the municipal spa called Thermal Baden (www.thermalbaden.ch). Just like going to your local swimming baths – although in truth, actually nothing like it.
Tired and aching from a day on the slopes, the rising clouds of steam drew me to the Roman spa district. For the cost of CHF 16, I was soon immersing myself in the 47°C sulphuric spring water of Thermal Baden’s outdoor bath. As night fell, the spa staff came and lit candles all around the outside pool, so I could continue to bathe under the stars and falling snow. Pure bliss. It couldn’t get any better – or so I thought. But soon after, a harp player appeared, and began to pluck away on the edge of the pool. A moonlight serenade; and an experience I won’t be forgetting in a hurry. Try finding that at your local swimming baths!
Baden in the summer is less about hot springs, and more about cold beer. The bars and restaurants spill out onto the streets in a typically European and vibrant fashion, and the local brewery, Müller Braü, opens up its large beer garden (www.biergartenbaden.ch) to the public. It’s a popular venue, packed with all age groups washing down a hearty barbeque with the delicious beers brewed on-site.
Summer is also a great time to go walking in the Limmat valley. Make your way through thick and colourful forests to Wettingen’s magnificent Cistercian Monastery, dating back to 1227. Or climb high into the hills to the Stein Castle ruins, and enjoy impressive views over the town and beyond.
Down by the riverside
Baden is built around the river Limmat. Looking so different in every season, but always just as pretty, it’s a part of town that sees much action in the summer. Bar terraces hang over the water, and evenings are whiled away to live music at Triebgut (www.triebgut.ch); an open air bar floating on the river itself. Canoes and kayaks float by, couples stroll along the riverside walkways overhung by magnificent trees, and youngsters jump in to swim.
I preferred to sit with a drink under the setting sun, wondering why, with a town as lovely as this, the locals didn’t decide to name their Baden twice.
Where to stay
A few hotels in Baden are luxury spa hotels in the spa area of the town. The one that stands out is Atrrium Hotel Blume (www.blume-baden.ch). Built in 1840, it has its own Roman thermal bath, and a fascinating art nouveau atrium that is listed as an historic monument.
Luxury doesn’t come cheap though, especially in Switzerland. A double room at Hotel Blume starts from CHF 215 – but you may find cheaper rooms at the Best Western Hotel Du Parc (www.duparc.ch).
Alternatively, hire an apartment like I did, at Résidence am Wasser (+41 056 221 11 17), with your own balcony overlooking the river Limmat. I paid CHF 550 for a week. If it's a weekend break you're after, enquire about availability and you may find it better value than the hotels.
For visitors on a budget, Baden also has a Youth Hostel (www.youthhostel.ch) in a great location by the river. A bed in a dormitory room here starts from CHF 33 per person.
When booking any accommodation, do so well in advance. Baden is home to the offices of two manufacturing heavyweights, Alstom and ABB, and their internationally based employees regularly fill up the town’s hotels.